The National Council of Churches (NCC) claims to represent more than 50 million American Christians. Drawing supporters mostly from mainstream Protestant congregations and the smaller Greek Orthodox Church, the NCC has positioned itself as a player on the far left side of the religious wing in the culture wars. It's not too much of a stretch to view the NCC as the institutional voice of the religious left.
In real terms, however, the NCC's membership claim is inflated. Regular congregants don't get a say in the participation of their church in the NCC. Most don't even know that the NCC exists. But inflating the numbers is common practice in religious circles. This gives organizations like the NCC an appearance of authority it does not really possess.
In many Christian churches there is a world of difference between the people in the pew and their leadership, a relationship that mirrors that of blue-collar workers and union executives. This division is most apparent in mainstream Protestant churches. A recent example is the elevation of a practicing homosexual to the rank of Bishop in the Episcopalian Church. Most of the American hierarchy favors it. Many of their flock disagree. It threatens that once noble institution with schism.
Most other Christian communions don't confront such divisive issues - not yet anyway. Two factors mask the division between the laity and the hierarchy. The first is trust in leadership. Short of a conflict like the Episcopalian debacle that forces the leadership out of the closet, congregants simply assume that the leadership shares the same values that they do.
The second factor is more duplicitous. Organizations like the NCC mask their political views in the vocabulary of the Christian tradition, making it appear that left wing politics is synonymous with Christian moral teaching. It's a well-crafted rhetorical ploy that allows the NCC to stake out the moral high ground and paint their conservative critics as uncaring and unsympathetic reactionaries who stand at the fringes - even outside - the Christian tradition.
Relevancy has always been a problem for the NCC. It doesn't really know why it exists. It was formed during the ascendancy of the Protestant mainstream in post war America before the cultural rifts of the 1960s emerged. How did it respond to the revolutionary tenor of the Sixties? The NCC adopted Marxist theory, putting it front and center in one of the great cultural debates of the day. But the glory was short-lived. Marxism fell and the NCC was left with the uneasy legacy of supporting totalitarian regimes known for their brutal persecution of Christians and others.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the NCC's enthusiasm for totalitarianism led it to put its stamp of approval on Liberation Theology, where Marxist ideology was fused with the Christian moral obligation to care for the poor. Liberation Theology swept through mainstream Protestant seminaries like wildfire. And the movement was, of course, widely embraced by left-wing Catholic thinkers, particularly the Jesuits, in Latin America and the United States. But the American Catholic Church never joined the NCC.
Like so many of their ideological soul mates, the NCC really believed it was on the right side of history. But the fall of Communism took them completely by surprise and in short order the time arrived to account for past sins. During a moment of unusual honesty and candor in 1993, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former General Secretary of the NCC, confessed, "We did not understand the depth of the suffering of Christians under communism. And we failed to really cry out under the communist oppression."
This clarity did not last long. Recently the NCC displayed the same callous indifference to the brutality of the North Korean and Cuban regimes it previously showed toward the Soviet Union. It proves that the NCC's love affair with Stalinism is alive and well.
In June 2003, the NCC called for the United States to pledge to a "non-aggression pact" and the eventual normalization of relations with North Korea. The NCC demanded "increased trade, commerce, and investment," and a new infusion of humanitarian aid in the form of goods, medicine and medical equipment, and agricultural technologies.
At least the NCC displayed a minimal awareness of the massive suffering taking place in North Korea. No mention was made however, that the totalitarian policies of the North Korean government was the cause. It was silent about the Korean Gulags, of the millions dead by starvation, and of the shattered economy that directs all spending into the North Korean military machine. Moral condemnation was reserved for the United States alone. In February, the world learned that 50,000 people were imprisoned in Camp 22 -- North Korea's largest concentration camp -- where horrific chemical weapons experiments were conducted on prisoners. Many in the North Korean Gulag are Christians, a group hated by dictator Kim Jong-il.
The same scenario played out in Cuba during an NCC visit in January. The NCC roundly condemned America for the economic embargo on Cuba. No mention was made of Castro's stranglehold on the Cuban economy. His jailing of dissidents earned only a mild scolding, forgotten as soon as it was said.
The facts are that since 2001, Havana has been buying American grain, food, and medicine on a cash and carry basis. Today Cuba is flat broke, a condition that makes Cuban default on any debt inevitable.
The reality of Cuba's bankruptcy isn't lost on the rest of the world either. France, Spain, and Italy suspended all credit to Castro when the yearly $200 million subsidy from the Soviet Union stopped in 2001. Mexico has tried to freeze Cuban assets in three countries to recover the $400 million that Havana owes it. In July 2002, Reuters reported "direct foreign investment in Cuba plummeted to $39.8 million from $488 million the year before."
But facts don't matter to the NCC. Neither does Castro's human rights abuses. During the January visit, NCC representatives demanded entry to Guantanamo in order to condemn the U.S policy concerning the prisoners detained there. At the same time an NCC delegate pleaded with the leadership to visit a Cuban prison to highlight the plight of political dissidents. Those leading the NCC Cuba trip refused.
The NCC is habitually on the wrong side of history. It is as wrong about North Korea and Cuba today as it was about the Soviet Union and Liberation Theology. The NCC twists the language of the Christian moral tradition to apologize for totalitarianism. It is not the first time that Christians have betrayed their heritage and used good to defend evil. But Christians and their churches can do something about the National Council of Churches. They can sweep it into the dustbin of history where, along with the aging Stalinists in Cuba and North Korea, the world will not lament its demise.
Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse is a Greek Orthodox priest and edits the website www.OrthodoxyToday.org